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Cold Turkey for a Tech Addict: Curing My Cravings for Connectivity in the Depths of the Australian Outback

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 26/10/2015 Barry Whyte

At first, it was like an itch. An involuntary spasm. Without thinking, I'd reach towards the my phone. I'd then get stressed when the familiar "Vodafone" logo was replaced with "SOS only", only to be replaced shortly after with "No Service". I'd open Mailbox without making the conscious decision to do so, only to see "No Network Connection" teasing me at the top of the screen.
2015-10-25-1445808784-8575054-IMG_1454.JPG © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-10-25-1445808784-8575054-IMG_1454.JPG But I needed it. I was doing this digital detox for the sake of my sanity. I felt the constant interruption of emails, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, SMS, Slack... it was wrecking my ability to focus, ruining my productivity, forcing unnatural levels of multitasking and abandoning me in a state of digital overload. I realised my ability to focus had been disrupted so much, I had failed to read a book cover-to-cover in over two years. A startling revelation for someone who considers himself to be well read.
I had made some previous efforts to stem the interruptions... I deleted Slack from my mobile, disabled push notifications, and made attempts to sync my email only once a day. But all of these efforts were futile. I couldn't kick the habit.
After months of battling to find time to read, write or think, I knew some sort of drastic measure was needed if I was to disengage with modern life. My solution? Getting on a train to the middle of nowhere.
I took a three-night sleeper train called the Indian Pacific, which runs once a week between Sydney and Perth. On this trip, I planned to force myself to switch off, take a break from tech, and read two books cover to cover. Two hours out of Sydney, the coastal green bush turned to uninterrupted red desert: land that has never been blemished with 24/7 connectivity. Four days speeding across the Australian outback without a cell tower in sight.
2015-10-25-1445808821-6232342-IMG_1456.JPG © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-10-25-1445808821-6232342-IMG_1456.JPG Occasionally, the most stressful thing would happen. We'd zoom through a random patch of cell coverage and my phone would ping with notifications. "Joel Outlaw has commented on your photo." "Kathryn Parsons invited you to an event." I would instinctively swipe right to open them up. What are they saying? But no. That random spot of 3G coverage in the Outback has gone and I'm "SOS Only" once more. It will be hours before I know whether or not Joel has made an inappropriate comment on my photo. The definition of stress in 2015.
What is up with "SOS Only" anyway? Just what sort of voodoo magic do phones use to call ambulances even if hundreds of miles from the nearest cell tower? If my phone can call an ambulance, why can't it download my emails? Without digital distraction, this thought confused and tormented me for a good few hours. (The answer is actually quite dull.)
A little over 24 hours in, I crack for the second time. The train neared Adelaide, the beautiful words "Vodafone 4G" reappeared on my phone and I convinced myself that I need to sync my Evernote, just in case, you know, this very piece I'm writing somehow gets lost. Imagine if it's not on the cloud. My goodness.
Before I know it, I'm tweeting and liking Facebook posts. It's involuntary. Subconscious. It just happened. I'm twenty minutes in before I become aware that I've ended up back on social media. Slap! The MacBook is slammed closed. At least I didn't check any e-mails.
We were then off the train for 3 hours, free to roam the streets of Adelaide. With 4G service once again, it's amazing how quickly I resumed my old habits of checking my phone intermittently. I forgot about the discipline I was attempting to impose on myself.
Moreover, my personal e-mail and work e-mail are now so integrated I even found myself reading and replying to work e-mails in spite of my efforts at taking a holiday. I've decided the iPhone desperately needs a 'vacation mode'. A switch that turns off Slack notifications, work e-mail, and all other stressors of the modern workplace.
2015-10-25-1445808104-9384281-IMG_14551.JPG © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-10-25-1445808104-9384281-IMG_14551.JPG The voyage continued. Back on the train that evening I try to honker down and get back into my book. I'm mostly able to focus on it, but perhaps only get through a page and a half each time before my mind wanders. I find it increasingly difficult to absorb long-format copy. I blame the Internet entirely, with hyperlinked short content pieces now comprising the majority of my reading stock.
Day three, I wake up in the Nullabor desert. A vast swathe of nothingness that goes on forever. We're back to "No Service", of course. I pick up my book, and boom. Finally, I have focus. I finish it by lunch time.
It made me realise: a digital detox is all or nothing. Incremental changes in our mobile usage habits aren't going to give us our attention spans back, because those habits are evolving at such a rapid pace. Our connection to the cloud has to be removed, every now and then, if we want to remember what it feels like to focus on the physical world.
Connected devices have undoubtedly been a net positive for individuals and society, but we make device use consistent with how humans cognitively process the world around them. Hopefully in the Outback, I made my relationship with technology a little bit more healthy.
A final note. The ultimate irony? I'm writing all of this on a MacBook.

AUSTRALIA © John Carnemolla via Getty Images AUSTRALIA

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